Free choice free relative clauses in Italian and Romanian


This paper aims to bring back to the linguistic scene a largely neglected character that is encountered in Italian and Romanian. This character exhibits a novel combination of morphological, syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic features that, separately, are already attested across languages. It looks like an embedded non-interrogative wh-clause introduced by a wh-phrase that is either made of or contains a wh-root with an affix: the suffix -unque in Italian or the prefix ori- in Romanian. We show that this construction exhibits the same morpho-syntactic properties as -ever free relative clauses in English and the same semantic and pragmatic properties as headed relative clauses introduced by the free choice determiner any in English. Therefore, we label our character a free choice free relative clause. We argue for a syntactic analysis of free choice free relative clauses as true free relatives rather than headed relatives and for a semantic analysis along the lines of some recent proposals about related free choice constructions. We also discuss the meaning of wh-words occurring in free choice free relatives and in related constructions and emphasize the importance of not taking for granted that morpho-syntactic identity necessarily coincides with semantic and pragmatic identity across languages.

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  1. 1.

    Morpheme boundaries within wh-words are shown in examples (1)–(15) and omitted in subsequent examples, as in standard Italian and Romanian orthography. Tense, mood, person, and number were not glossed, if they could be conveyed with the English gloss. The following abbreviations were used in the glosses: 1: first person; 2: second person; 3: third person; acc: accusative; cl: clitic; cnd: conditional; dat: dative; fc: free choice; fem: feminine; gen: genitive; impf: imperfect; imp: imperative; ind: indicative; pl: plural; refl: reflexive; rel: relative marker; sbj: subjunctive; sg: singular. sbj followed by no tense marking means ‘present subjunctive’.

  2. 2.

    For instance, the examples of free choice free relatives in (41e), (49a), (65), and (66) in Giannakidou and Cheng (2006) illustrate their core semantic properties and are given as fully acceptable. The morpho-syntactic equivalent FC-FRs in Italian and Romanian are completely unacceptable.

  3. 3.

    Historically, ori comes from the Latin form uelis > veri/ori (‘ want’). It was used as a (correlative) disjunction of the type ‘either…or’ in Old Romanian. Diachronic studies show that the disjunctive use preceded the FC use, with the latter originating in correlative constructions where the complex disjunction connected two (definite) free relatives (see Dinică 2012 and Gheorghe 2014 and references therein).

  4. 4.

    Comunque, which is morphologically made of come ‘how’ and -unque, can only be used as an adverbial meaning ‘in any case’/‘anyhow’ or a clausal subordinator meaning ‘no matter how’ or ‘nevertheless’. Quandunque, which is morphologically made of quando ‘when’ and -unque, was used to introduce FC-FRs in Old Italian but is no longer part of the active lexicon. Qualsiasi is used with the same distribution and interpretation as qualunque; the suffix -siasi is not used in any other FC expression.

  5. 5.

    FC-FRs in Italian always allow for subjunctive (and strongly favor it in the variety spoken by one of the authors). In Romanian, subjunctive is not allowed in FC-FRs (cf. Farkas 1985 for subjunctive in Romanian and Italian with special focus on its use in headed relative clauses and Farkas 1992 for the distribution of subjunctive in complement clauses in Romanian). Instead, another non-indicative mood—the conditional—is possible in FC-FRs in Romanian, with no clear preference for either the indicative and conditional mood (e.g. the sentences in (18)–(20) below).

  6. 6.

    English exhibits a similar tripartite pattern with ever-wh-clauses, as shown in (i)–(iii). The literature on ever-FRs (cf. Jacobson 1995; Dayal 1997; von Fintel 2000; Condoravdi 2015, a.o.) has focused on (i). The few investigations of the construction in (iii) have treated it as substantially different from ever-FRs, more like a clausal adjunct with a conditional import (cf. Izvorski 2000; Rawlins 2013). The construction in (ii) has been virtually ignored. See Sect. 4.4 and Sect. 5 for further remarks on ever-FRs.

    1. (i)

      They reject [whatever proposals Julie comes up with].

    2. (ii)

      [Whatever proposal Julie comes up with], they reject it.

    3. (iii)

      [Whatever proposal Julie comes up with], I won’t change my mind.

    This similarity between ever-FRs and FC-FRs may be taken as further evidence of their syntactic resemblance.

  7. 7.

    Complex wh-phrases—phrases containing a wh-word and other lexical material—cannot introduce plain free relatives in Italian. The equivalent of what is the complex wh-phrase che cosa (lit. ‘what thing’), which, cannot introduce plain free relatives. There is no -unque from che cosa, but qualunque cosa is used, instead.

  8. 8.

    Romanian allows for the wh-word cât/câtă/câţi/câte ‘how much/many’ (inflected for gender and number) to introduce headed relative clauses whose nominal head is preceded by a numeral or certain quantifiers (Grosu 2013). Cât/câtă/câţi/câte in headed relative clauses does not select for any other lexical material, while it selects for an NP, an AdjP, or an AdvP in FC-FRs, plain free relative clauses, and wh-interrogative clauses. As an anonymous reviewer reminded us, Italian can use the wh-word quale/quali ‘which’ (inflected for number) preceded by the definite determiner to introduce appositive relative clauses (if the subject or the object are relativized) or restrictive relative clauses (if any other constituent is relativized). Either use is marked as high-register. The form definite determiner + quale/quali is not allowed in any other construction.

  9. 9.

    Plain free relatives introduced by who in English exhibit various degrees of acceptability (cf. Patterson and Caponigro 2016), while the corresponding chi FRs in Italian are fully productive.

  10. 10.

    Thanks to the anonymous reviewer that first pointed out these diachronic facts for a related construction in Dutch (e.g. wie dan ook ‘who then also’); cf. Aguilar et al. (2010) for further details. For Italian, our search was conducted on Tommaseo Online ( and Lessicografia della Crusca in Rete ( on November 15, 2016. For Romanian, we rely on Dinică (2012); Gheorghe (2014) and Giurgea (2016). For English, we conducted a search on the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary ( on November 21, 2016 and searched the Penn Corpus of Historical English ( (many thanks to Gary Patterson for helping us with the latter).

  11. 11.

    The restriction observed for chiunque and oricine is attested with non-wh expressions as well. For instance, ognuno ‘every/each one’ and ciascuno ‘each one’ in Italian are single words with the same distribution as DPs. They cannot be modified by a headed relative clause, as shown in (i).

    1. (i)
  12. 12.

    The distribution of any (and FC-FRs) with necessity modals is more complex than this example suggests. See Dayal (2013a, 2013b) for an overview of FC any and FC-any HRs with different modals.

  13. 13.

    The Italian FC-FR in (50b) triggers an ‘at least one’ interpretation. By uttering it, the speaker is inviting the hearer to pick up one book or more. On the other hand, the Romanian (50c) and the English (50d) counterparts typically convey the meaning of “one and no more than one”. This latter meaning can be rendered in Italian with the existential FC un qualunque + NP (cf. the detailed discussion in Chierchia 2013:Chap. 5). Notice that, unlike qualunque in FC-FRs, un qualunque does not behave like a wh-element, e.g. it does not move, and cannot introduce FC-FRs, but just headed relatives. This difference may be due to the fact that the wh-word qualunque introducing FC-FRs only selects for a singular NP as its complement, unlike English and Romanian. In Italian, qualunque libri ‘any books’ is completely unacceptable, while any books and orice cărţi are fully well formed strings in English and Romanian, respectively, and can easily convey the “at least one” interpretation.

  14. 14.

    Cf. Dayal (2013a: ex. 50) and related discussion for a case in which the epistemic agent (‘attitude holder’ in her terminology) differs from the speaker.

  15. 15.

    To our knowledge, there are few papers investigating the relation between free choice items and free relative clauses with some form of free choice meaning. Horn (2000), Aloni (2007b), Dayal (2013b) and Condoravdi (2015) discuss the connection between ever-FRs and free choice items. Giannakidou and Cheng (2006) develop an account of Greek and Mandarin Chinese free choice items and their connection with ever-FRs. In this paper, we limit ourselves to data in Italian and Romanian, leaving a detailed cross-linguistic comparison for the future.

  16. 16.

    For ways to derive the final meaning of FRs as definite descriptions from a set denotation via type-shifting, see Jacobson (1995), Caponigro (2003, 2004), and (Aloni 2007b).

  17. 17.

    It is well-known that there are languages in which bare wh-words can easily occur without a wh-clause (e.g. Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, among many others). Interestingly, these are all wh-in-situ languages lacking FRs. There seems to be a very strong tendency for FRs introduced by wh-words to be allowed only in languages with wh-movement. So far, the only possible exception we are familiar with is Tsez (Polinsky 2015), though more work needs to be done on those constructions to fully access their productivity and nature.


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We are extremely grateful to Gennaro Chierchia, Veneeta Dayal, and Donka Farkas for their invaluable suggestions, comments, and criticism, in addition to the inspiration they provided with their own work. We would like to thank Emanuela Arosio, Andrea Beltrama, Luciano Caponigro, Gennaro Chierchia, Flavio Feniello, Onelia Rivolta, Jacopo Romoli, and Ubaldo Talarico for sharing their native intuitions and judgments about Italian, as well as Oana Draga, Donka Farkas, Ion Giurgea, Oana Lungu, and Andreea Nicolae for sharing their native intuitions and judgments about Romanian. We are also grateful to Guglielmo Cinque, Cleo Condoravdi, Daniel Kane, Gary Patterson, Carson Schütze, Harold Torrence, three anonymous reviewers, and the audiences at the Linguistics Department at Rutgers University and the Linguistics Department at the University of California Santa Cruz. Anamaria Fălăuş gratefully acknowledges funding from the Basque Government (IT769-13). We, the authors, are solely responsible for any remaining mistakes.

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Caponigro, I., Fălăuş, A. Free choice free relative clauses in Italian and Romanian. Nat Lang Linguist Theory 36, 323–363 (2018).

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  • Free choice
  • Free relative clauses
  • Free choice “any”
  • Wh-words